The Very Worst Kind of Bias

Here is a truly profound quote by Bertrand Russell:

"The conception of Sin which is bound up with Christian ethics is one that does an extraordinary amount of harm, since it affords people an outlet for their sadism which they believe to be legitimate, and even noble."

People have natural cruelty in them, and they also have a natural desire to view themselves as good.  The concept of sin allows them to satisfy both; they get to indulge their cruelty by punishing the sinner or by cheering the punishment from the sidelines and at the same time they get to retain their belief in their own goodness because the concept of sin has built into it the idea that the sinner had it coming or even that the punishment was for the sinner’s own good.  That doesn’t mean that there is no genuinely evil behavior deserving of condemnation and punishment, but the existence of this really nasty bias ought to make one set the bar for doing so pretty darn high. Here’s another by David Brin:

"While there are many drawbacks, self-righteousness can also be heady, seductive, and even… well… addictive. Any truly honest person will admit that the state feels good. The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.."

Allowing yourself to enjoy your own rightness and the other guy’s wrongness might have some merit if it is something that you give yourself as a reward for fighting genuine injustice.  But the fact that it is so much fun (Brin believes that it is literally addictive in the brain chemistry sense) ought to make you very suspicious of it; if it’s that much fun you are going to want to adopt the beliefs that allow you to get it in its purest and tastiest form, and such beliefs are unlikely to correspond to truth.

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  • TGGP

    This post brings up some of the reasons I advocate emotivism (in the Pascal’s Wager consequentialist sense, ignoring whether it is in fact correct).

    What would you consider good evidence that you were “fighting genuine injustice” rather than suffering from “the very worst kind of bias”? I could understand if you claimed to have identified the sign of the bias, but I don’t see how one can have an idea of its magnitude.

  • Mike Bowen

    It would be hard to compose a post which shows less understanding of Christianity than this. I think you have a ‘projection’ problem.

  • I don’t know if this was directed at me or not, but indeed I had not considered that in much of the world, “sin” is still considered grounds for condemnation to eternal torture, as opposed to a hearty verbal lecture. Perhaps I should not use the term.

  • David J. Balan

    Eliezer, It wasn’t directed at you at all. I had not even recalled that you used the term.

  • If we sent this post by Chronophone to various times in the past, what would it come out as?

  • People have a natural cruelty in them

    I am highly skeptical of comments like this, because I have no idea what “natural cruelty” means in this context unless you are simply saying that people are, by nature, bad. (If this is what you’re saying, then I suppose you agree with the traditional Christian idea that humans are “fallen.”) If you mean that humans are, by nature, competitive, or vindictive, or self-righteous and that these ways of acting can lead to cruel behavior, then say that.

    Is this a sort of “naturalistic fallacy” – inferring from our evolutionary roots that we are necessarily cruel, or evil, or “fallen”? But why think that our “nature” is either good or bad in itself, rather than that our “nature” leads to “temptations” to act in certain ways which, when viewed through a moral lens, would strike one as bad (or perhaps irrational, or biased) ways of behaving?

  • David J. Balan

    Matthew, I was merely making the empirical claim that a fair number of people, a fair amount of the time, enjoy inflicting suffering or watching people suffer.

  • TGGP

    Cruelty towards “sinners” may be with us to facilitate altruistic punishment. My favorite blog has a number of posts on that topic.

    Altruistic punishment

    Altruistic Punishment: part 2

    Altruistic Punishment in Monkeys

    This one is from a different blog, but is still good
    Brain Rewards For Carrying Out Altruistic Punishment

  • I suspect we mainly want to feel better than other people, and we find cruelty is sometimes a good means toward that end. So we should be similarly suspicious of ways we present ourselves as generous to others, while still acting superior. I have in mind, of course, paternalism.

  • Austin Cartwright

    “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)

    I guess this parable is not part of “Christian ethics”.

  • Austin and Mike, I agree that David only points to a problem that arises from the concept of sin deserving punishment. He does not offer an effective overall critique of Christian ethics, and I hope he did not intend to offer such a critique.

  • David J. Balan

    TGGP, You are right that altruistic punishment has its virtues. If someday they identify the gene for being an altruistic punishment type, I’ll be shocked if I don’t have it. But my point still applies: there is a very real danger in giving in to those impulses.

    Robin, You’re right that paternalism poses some dangers along these lines.

    Mike and Austin, I did not intend in this post to make any specific comment about Christianity; it just happened to appear in the Russell line that I wanted to quote. However, Russell certainly did intend to offer a critique of Christianity, and of religion in general, and since the subject has come up I must say that it is a critique to which I am broadly very sympathetic.

  • What this post seems to miss however is that religion and sin are not required for this behavior. The behavior is there naturally in man, and finds its outlet often times through religious practice. But this does not in and of itself make religion bad, or any philosophy or practice that would seek to hold people accountable for their actions bad.

    If the post were entirely accurate, and my above statement wrong, then only in religious circles would hypocrites and self-righteous be found. And we know that simply isn’t true.

    Also, I didn’t see any justification or rationale that would make such a bias the “worst” of all.

  • I agree with Mr Balan that the habit of deriving pleasure or comfort from the belief or feeling that one is secure in one’s moral rightness is one of humankind’s most destructive habits.

    Besides a belief that one is surrounded by sinners, the experience of always being at the top of the status hierarchy is another common way to maintain a feeling of certainty about one’s rightness.

    Ray G: I agree. Hitler for example seems to have encouraged the habit in his audiences. When I rented Triumph of the Will the image that struck me the hardest was of Hitler hugging himself and making an expression of comfort and satisfaction on his face while his words assured Germans of their moral rightness.

  • Zathras

    If the 20th Century has taught us anything, it is that man does not need religion to inflict cruelty based upon a feeling of superiority of others. There will always be an excuse, be it communism, or a feeling of racial or national superiority. Russell’s quote was from the other side of the century, so he might be excused from missing this point.

  • David J. Balan

    Ray G and Zathras, I didn’t mean to suggest that this phenomenon was only at work among religious believers. However, I do think that religion is conducive to it.

    Ray G, I think it’s the worst kind of bias simply because of the terrible things it makes people do.

  • “Ray G, I think it’s the worst kind of bias simply because of the terrible things it makes people do.”

    I do see the point you’re trying to make, but it still swings back to what is in our human nature, and not the philosophy or religion that people hide behind.

    For two years, I taught at a private high school, and the girls were absolutely vicious. No religion or philosophy was involved, but there was definitely the easy to recognize need for being superior. Girls would corner whichever one was currently the most popular, and say the vilest things to them. The “mean” girls held the subconscious belief that if girl A is fat and ugly, then it somehow makes them – the mean girls – prettier or skinnier by default.

    So it just comes down to what a person wants to glom on to in order to live out their superiority complexes, or whatever they might be called.

  • dilys

    Agreement with the basic observation: self-righteousness is addictive. So addictive that whether or not it arises in a religiously-observant context, it takes on a religious flavor, as in numinousness/ritual and a kind of unholy priority. An activist I knew in law school when challenged for his self-righteousness bristled quite sincerely with the all-purpose response: “But I’m right!”

    Years ago there was a neurology article in the NYTimes reporting that social dominance (agency + superiority, in my definition) itself was associated with powerful endorphins.

    Cruelty is at root, I believe, associated with the question of agency (and survival), “do I exist and have an impact on the world?” probably stemming from perhaps-inevitable deficiencies and excesses in child nurturance.

    The work of Rene Girard — mimetic socialization > envy > cruelty for social cohesion — probably applies here too.

    I am active in a Christian religion, and anyone paying attention recognizes the superhuman tension arising between the arenas of
    –discriminating between the “Two Ways,” and
    –the obligation to see oneself as “chief sinner” for the purposes of the undertaking.

    In view of the anxiety roused by real moral self-examination, there is an inevitable temptation to resort to comparative self-righteousness — an odd kind of relief in personally “immanentizing the eschaton,” unilaterally declaring the desired conclusion without actually meeting the standards. Religious practice addresses this in part by recommending, unless an institutional responsibility requires otherwise, focusing only on ones’ own sins.

    Even as to those who rationally dismiss religion, any kind of hard-wired conscience qua Natural Law or acquired socialization morality may create a phenomenon that when ones’ behavior fails to meet its requirements, the “wrongness” can easily and covertly get projected onto the world at large, IMO.

    In short, yes to the description of the phenomenon, yes to the frequent arising in religious contexts, no as to any necessary connection with religious practice and aspiration. It’s almost everywhere in small and large degree.

    For the purposes of discourse, the ubiquity of the self-righteous bias probably means that the phenomenon should be bracketed, not disqualifying what is said, and facts and logic on all sides be addressed without the red-herring of whether there is self-righteousness displayed or inferred. Otherwise it’s one of those receding mirrors, a siren-song of reciprocal self-defining accusations.

  • Jonathan Haidt writes about the Myth of Pure Evil in The Happiness Hypothesis. There is much to learn on human bias from this book.